Town Bar adds style to Oakland's nightlife

  • by Heather Cassell
  • Tuesday May 9, 2023
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Town Bar & Lounge visionary Joshua Huynh, who owns Oakland's newest gay bar where allies are welcome. (photo: Heather Cassell)
Town Bar & Lounge visionary Joshua Huynh, who owns Oakland's newest gay bar where allies are welcome. (photo: Heather Cassell)

Oakland's newest gay bar, Town Bar & Lounge, is a family affair.

"I'm so happy because I've been a longtime Oakland resident and we didn't have very many options," Joshua Huynh, a gay Vietnamese American man, said about his dream of opening a gay bar and lounge fashioned in an updated 1920s style that is now a reality.

"I've always been drawn to Art Deco. It's a little bit over the top, but it's also modern. It's timeless," he said.

Town opened April 20 and it's already creating a buzz.

The Bay Area Reporter went to Town to check out Oakland's newest gay nightlife spot April 29. It was clear: the word was spreading fast.

"It has been such a huge outpouring of support," Huynh said about the community's response to Town. "Like they just never thought a queer space would be so elevated."

Additionally, he feels LGBTQ people and allies are out supporting gay businesses. People are embracing queer spaces.

A group of friends relax on a Saturday evening at Town Bar & Lounge in Oakland. (photo: Heather Cassell)  

Style, taste, and community
DeAndre Sloan, an Oakland native, who was at Town for his second time since it opened, was also glad to see a new gay bar in the "bright side of the Bay."

"I'm glad to see it because growing up we didn't have a lot of this going on," said Sloan, a Black gay man.

Oakland's LGBTQ nightlife scene took a deafening blow in 2019. Uptown's anchor gay clubs Club BNB and Club 21 closed. Then COVID-19 turned the struggling gay nightlife into a ghost town overnight.

"It's good to see the community building back up," Sloan said.

Orlando Ayala, who was out enjoying happy hour with a friend, said, "It's a great place to just come and have a cocktail and enjoy people's company." Ayala also lives in Oakland.

A group of friends stopped by the bar to have a cocktail after a day in Napa. They said they appreciated the bar's style and cocktails.

"It's a little small, but it's beautiful. It's got a unique style," said Michelle Kim, an ally.
Her friend Lawrence Bunchen agreed the bar was "cozy," but that "It's got a lot of style." He added the drinks were "approachable."

Town's seven signature cocktails are fashioned after the colors of the rainbow. Mixologist Oscar Sinisterra of Hello Stranger crafted the drinks that are delicious. They also have fun names: Afternoon Delight, Fashion Forward, and Green Eyes Envy Me, to name a few.

Tyree C, a gay Black man who was hanging out at the bar with Sloan, sipping their Ami-Gos, was excited about Town. He said he liked that there wasn't a cover charge and the drinks were good and priced well. Sloan also noted the music was decent coming from the state-of-the-art sound system.

LGBTQ Oaklanders are coming out of years of the pandemic into a hostile anti-gay environment. They are craving community and some sign of good times. They are also giving queer San Franciscans a reason to cross the bridge.

Huynh is excited about the rebirth of Oakland's gay nightlife and to be a part of it. He listed off the LGBTQ bars currently open and new ones set to open soon: The White Horse, The Port Bar, Que Rico, Summer Bar & Lounge, Fluid510, and Feelmore Social.

"I'm excited to open around the corner from The Port. Last night, we had people going back and forth, which I love," he said.

It's exactly what Huynh envisioned, reminding him of his bar-hopping days in his 20s in the Castro. He wants that for Oakland's Uptown neighborhood.

"It is turning into more of a gay district, and I love that I'm bringing something different to that."
Town is located near the 19th Street BART Station near The Port. Que Rico, a gay Latinx bar that opened during the pandemic, is about a ten-minute walk from Town. Summer Bar & Lounge is near the 12th Street BART Station.

Feelmore Social, a sex-positive lounge, founded by adult shop owner Nenna Joiner opened May 5. The Port owners will officially open Fluid510 May 20.

Tyree C was sold on the fact that Town was near other gay bars. "It is exciting," he said. "It's summertime. I wish more bars would open because I like to go out."

New Town Bar & Lounge customers Tyree C and DeAndre Sloan, enjoyed the Ami-Go, one of the signature rainbow cocktails crafted by Oscar Sinisterra. (photo: Heather Cassell)  

a family affair
Huynh's dream started in 2019 when he realized that he wasn't happy as an interior designer for homes and some restaurants.

"I don't know if it's called a midlife crisis [in your] late 30s," he said. "I realized I wasn't happy. Something had to change. I thought about, 'When was I the happiest?'"

He reviewed his careers, which included time at Contra Costa County's District Attorney's Office and bartending. His happier years were when he bartended in the Castro from 2005 to 2012.
"I started tiptoeing around the idea of opening a spot and everything just fell into place."

His family got behind his vision for the Oakland gay bar going all in with him in financing and building Town.

"They support me 1,000%," Huynh said. He expressed how lucky he is to have a supportive, close-knit family that accepts him for who he is. He never had to come out. They already knew and didn't care.

Huynh's parents came to the United States as Vietnamese refugees in 1979 after the Vietnam War ended. His sister was born in Vietnam and his brother was born in a refugee camp. Huynh is the only one born in America. The family settled in Concord, with the help of a sponsor family, the Hidalgos. They built their American life as builders and entrepreneurs.

Huynh's family is grateful to the Hidalgos, who they are all still close to this day.

"My family and I wouldn't be where we are without their guidance and support," he said.
Huynh loves Oakland. He had no hesitation about his vision for Town to be in Oakland when friends asked. Even through the insurmountable challenges he and his family faced to see Town become a reality.

The original location he selected fell through. Then, ground floor space became available in the 1931 Art Deco I. Magnin building. The former retail space along Thomas L. Berkley Way (20th Street) had never been a bar or restaurant before.

Huynh and his family survived the City of Oakland's notorious licensing and permitting process to transform the space. COVID-19, supply chain failures and soaring construction costs only added to the challenge, but his family and he worked through it. His brother and father, who owns a contracting businesses, took his ideas and made them a reality.

"What can you do, right? You just gotta keep going with it. We were in so deep there's no turning back," Huynh said about the venture. "I always had the vision for a 1920s Art Deco bar, even before we secured the space," he said. "The building ownership was excited that we were going to open an Art Deco bar here."

Black flags with 'Town Bar & Lounge' written in metallic gold lettering, along with the Progressive Rainbow flag, now mark the bar.

Huynh's sole focus is to keep people coming back to Town. He hired longtime Oakland resident Diana Maduli, a self-described "hella gay" woman, as the Town's bar manager.

Huynh doesn't currently offer food at the bar. He's still working out the logistics for bar bites as well as programming, he said. He's just happy to be open and welcoming guests.

Town Bar & Lounge, 2001 Broadway, Oakland. (510) 350-8569

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